Good, Better, or Great?

 Recommended Reading (seriously, go read this now): Autism & ABA & A$$holes

ABA peeps: Do you want to be a good Behavior Analyst? Or a Great Behavior Analyst?

'Behavioral Artistry' as described and defined in the 2019 Kevin Callahan et al. article, is the difference between being a practitioner following learned "recipes" or paint-by-number strategies, and a creative, passionate clinician, qualitatively better at their job.

We know the process of obtaining the BCBA credential: verified coursework, hands-on practical supervised experience, and passing a rigorous exam ( Completing these steps to satisfaction will yield a BCBA.

But will that BCBA be....pleasant? Professional? Funny? Warm? Engaging? Enjoyable to work for? Caring? Empathetic? Socially Mature? 

Does it matter what we know (skillset), if the experience of working with us/for us is terrible?

I'm going to answer for everyone and say: No.

If you have been working in this field for some time and have not come across the stereotypical "cold, robotic" BCBA, then how exciting for you. Unfortunately, your experience of not working for or with this type of person does not deny their existence. I have worked for quite a few arrogant, rude, empathy-deficient BCBA's, and have also helped fellow BCBA's (and myself) to self-correct when that good ole' bedside manner needs a realignment.

This is a problem.

It's a problem because BCBA's most often fulfill a role focused on people, and socially valid behavior change. People need to like us, in order for services to be most effective. People need to listen to what we have to say, value our recommendations, and trust our data in order to yield any results.

As a BCBA, do your supervisees enjoy working for you? Are they having a pleasant experience being supervised by you? Do your clients enjoy seeing you show up at their school, home, or clinic? Do the client parents or families enjoy working with you? What about your colleagues, the leadership over you, or other professionals you interact with to do your job (educators, SLP's, OT's, physicians, etc.)? Beyond data sheets, reports, and graphs, what is the qualitative experience people have when they encounter you at work?

Basically, the big question here is: **What are the behaviors that make some BCBA's better than others?**

The concept of Behavioral Artistry was developed out of a need to address the interpersonal behaviors of Behavior Analysts (which ones are most needed? what happens when they are lacking?), and directly tie those behaviors to clinical outcomes. In case you missed that---> insufficient interpersonal skills can have negative impacts on treatment delivery, and client success. See why this topic is so important? 

BCBA's with better interpersonal skills (as measured by specific behavioral characteristics), LOOK better when doing the job. They laugh more, they smile more, they pay attention better, they listen more carefully, they are more objective, they are more creative, they are optimistic, they are persistent, and other people have a better experience working with them. 

I always find it so odd that in a role where many of us are working to help our clients be more flexible (Super Flex, anyone??), as BCBA's we can be some of the most rigid and inflexible clinicians, when compared to other disciplines. Why is that? Who exactly does that benefit??

In 2016 Leaf and colleagues examined the pervasive use of ABA in autism treatment, and pondered ways behavioral interventions could become less effective:

"A danger inherent in any large scale, quickly growing area is a loss of focus on meaningful purpose, process, and outcomes. In the field of ABA, this might translate into dogmatic lack of attention to clinical significance, selection of impractical procedures, ritualistic data-collection, over-abundant use of off-putting, dehumanizing terminology, disregard of logistical realities, and insensitivity to consumer issues"

 Any part of this quote sound familiar? Or like anything you've experienced at work? Particularly in the current climate of the ABA industry, where Big Business can be more focused on profit than quality.

Behavioral Artists are best viewed as organically talented BCBA's (meaning their greatness is more about who they are, than what they know)  who consistently demonstrate specific interpersonal characteristics such as the following:

  • Likes people: is able to establish rapport; demonstrates concern; wants to facilitate positive change;

  • Has “perceptive sensitivity”: pays careful attention to important indicators of client behavior that may be small, subtle, and gradual;

  • Doesn’t like to fail: sees difficult clients as a personal challenge to overcome, and as an opportunity for the client to succeed;

  • Has a sense of humor: recognizes and accepts that much in the educational and human services professions is bizarre, illogical, and humorous;

  • Looks “for the pony”: is optimistic and sees behavior change in a “glass half-full” context; always believes programming will be successful; is less likely to burn out;

  • Is thick-skinned: doesn’t take negative client actions towards herself or himself personally; maintains objectivity and positivity; and

  • Is “self-actualized”: does whatever is necessary and appropriate to facilitate and produce positive behavior change; is not under audience control; is creative

If we want to be great clinicians (which...… why wouldn't we want to be great?), then the measuring stick used needs to go far beyond goals mastered, assessment grids completed, and billable hour quotas met. Productivity does not equal excellent interpersonal skills.

The measuring stick used must include qualitative measures, such as client feedback, supervisee feedback, warmth, and compassion.


Callahan, K., Foxx, R. M., Swierczynski, A., Aerts, X., Mehta, S., McComb, M. E., Nichols, S. M., Segal, G., Donald, A., & Sharma, R. (2019). Behavioral Artistry: Examining the Relationship Between the Interpersonal Skills and Effective Practice Repertoires of Applied Behavior Analysis Practitioners. Journal of autism and developmental disorders49(9), 3557–3570

Leaf JB, Leaf R, McEachin J, Taubman M, Rosales S, Ross RK, et al. Applied behavior analysis is a science and therefore, progressiveJournal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2016;46:720–731.

Are All BCBA's Robots or Just Mine?

Providing Compassionate Care 

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